Military life in Canada is a family affair, and the spouses and children of service people face unique challenges. They must cope with repeated moves and long absences, an age-old problem heightened by a profound shift: Military families include more single parents and dual-service couples than ever before. As the 30,000 Afghanistan veterans return home, many are grappling with mental-health issues. More than two-thirds live off-base, sometimes isolated among civilian neighbours who may falsely believe they get free housing, jump the queue for a new doctor and don’t pay taxes. As research shows, military families are remarkably resilient, but the strains are evident. “Part of the culture of military life is that you don’t whine, you don’t complain, you don’t ask – you figure it out yourself,” says Nora Spinks, the executive director of the Vanier Institute of the Family. The institute is starting a public-awareness campaign to educate the public about military life and remind Canadians, as they honour their veterans and soldiers this Remembrance Day, that there is family standing – and sometimes struggling – behind every uniform.
‘We’re both mom and dad’
Master Warrant Officer Paul Watkins proudly lists his fatherhood milestones: baking homemade bread; finding a bargain price on a package of diapers, shopping with his daughter for her first bra. He remembers designing sets for a Christmas concert and cooking pancake breakfasts at school. Sometimes, he’d be the only dad in the room. “You are very proud of yourself then – especially when your child looks out and sees you there.”
But it’s not all Mr. Mom moments: The white towels that emerged from the laundry pink are a family joke, and MWO Watkins, an aviation maintenance superintendent who often works the night shift, also recalls the hockey games and band practice and homework help his kids missed because no one was home. That’s the cost of having two military parents, both serving in positions that can send them on search-and-rescue missions with an hour’s notice, or see them deployed to Afghanistan for months at a time. Occasionally, their absences would overlap. In 2008, Master Corporal Shae Watkins, an administrative clerk, was deployed to Kandahar; last year, it was Paul’s turn – he was away from home for 234 days, training time included. For now, Paul and Shae are home together, based at CFB Comox in British Columbia.
“The kids grew up knowing at any one moment one or two of us could be gone,” Paul says. “We’re both mom and dad.” While military families work together, carpooling and filling in on short notice, “you are really on your own. You make the best of it.”
When Hurricane Juan struck the East Coast in 2003, Shae was stationed on the HMCS Charlottetown. Their house had lost power and running water; before he left for work to assist with the search-and-rescue operations, Paul organized a generator, a sitter, and drove his four kids to the gas station so they could each fill up their rationed jerrycans. The family had bought a house about half an hour outside Halifax to save on housing – moving around on short notice can make a large mortgage risky, even if you can afford it – so there wasn’t support from the base. That’s also a new reality for military families: Living “on civvy street” means their kids didn’t have peers who also track storms on satellite when they worry about mom out at sea, or who consult maps when a bomb explodes in Afghanistan. “They are acutely aware of what’s going on,” Paul says. “You have to toughen them up a little bit.”
And while Shae was accustomed to Paul’s long absences, since he had been away more often earlier in their marriage, she says, “you realize how alone you are during extended deployments when the chores are done, the kids have gone to bed and you do not have anyone to talk to or discuss family issues. There is no replacing your other half.”
The bra story is classic Watkins lore, says Chelsea, 17, the only girl in the family: “My dad will probably tell that story at my wedding.” But being the kids in a dual-service family can also be lonely – she once stormed out of class in tears when the students started criticizing the mission in Afghanistan. During dangerous deployments, missing a phone call home would be devastating. And although Chelsea visited the school counsellor once a week, she rarely felt understood. “It was hard to find someone to talk to,” she says.